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Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012

About time for India and Japan to grow bolder

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — Though Yoshihiko Noda is the sixth Japanese Prime Minister that Manmohan Singh has had to deal with during his seven years at the helm of the Indian government, the visit of Noda to India last month has once again underlined the growing momentum in Indo-Japanese ties.

The two nations renewed a bilateral currency swap agreement whereby Japan agreed to make $15 billion available to India to help it in stabilizing the rupee which has witnessed a decline of more than 16 percent in its value this past year. Japan has also decided to invest $4.5 billion in a 1,483-km industrial corridor stretching from New Delhi to Mumbai, and has promised $1.7 billion worth of loans for various infrastructure projects, including the expansion of Delhi's metro railway.

The talks between Singh and his Japanese counterpart were dominated by the enhancement of trade ties, maritime security and civil-nuclear cooperation. Despite the budgetary tightening in Japan post-Fukushima disaster, India remains the largest recipient of Japan's overseas development aid and Japan remains critical if India is to meet its infrastructural development targets in the coming years.

Both New Delhi and Tokyo have made an effort in recent years to put Indo-Japanese ties into high gear. India's booming economy makes it an attractive trading and business partner for Japan as the latter tries to overcome its long years of economic stagnation. Japan is also reassessing its role as a security-provider in the region and beyond, and of all its neighbors, India seems. A new generation of political leaders in India and Japan view each other with fresh eyes, allowing for a change from the trajectory of bilateral relations.

India's ties with Japan have come a long way since May 1998, when Japan imposed sanctions and suspended its overseas development assistance over India's nuclear tests. Since then, the changing strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region has brought the two countries closer together, culminating in Singh's last visit to Japan in 2011, which resulted in a new road map to transform a low-key relationship into a major strategic partnership.

While China's rise figures into the evolution of Indo-Japanese ties, so, too, does the U.S. attempt to build India into a major balancer in the region.

Both Japan and India rely on the security of the sea-lanes of communication for their energy security and economic growth. They have a shared interest in guaranteeing the free transit of energy and trade between the Suez Canal and the Western Pacific. With this in mind they are developing maritime capabilities to cooperate with each other and other regional powers.

The navies of the two are now exercising regularly, as the interactions between the coast guards is increasing, with a view to combat to combat piracy and terrorism, and to cooperate on disaster relief operations. Japan feels that only the Indian Navy in the region can be trusted to secure the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, vital for Japan's energy security. It is also important for India to join hands with the much larger Japanese navy, Asia's most powerful, to make sure that no adversarial power controls the regional waterways.

Talks on a civilian nuclear pact, however, seem to be going nowhere at the moment, with the two sides merely agreeing to speed up talks. Japan continues to insist that India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before finalizing such a bilateral agreement, but India has no intention of doing so given its long-standing concerns over what it sees as the discriminatory nature of these treaties. The new nuclear-liability law in India — which established higher financial liability limits for accidents than the industry standard and allows nuclear operators to sue suppliers — could also make greater civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries more difficult to accomplish. Still, the push for an agreement will remain strong, as an India-Japan civil-nuclear pact would reinforce India's return to the global nuclear market, while signaling both countries' desire to build a partnership that reinforces regional stability.

Both India and Japan are well aware of China's not so subtle attempts at preventing their rise. It is most clearly reflected in China's opposition to the expansion of the United Nations Security Council to include India and Japan as permanent members. China's status as a permanent member of the Security Council and as a nuclear weapon state is something that it would be loathe to share with any other state in Asia.

India's "Look East" policy of active engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia remains largely predicated upon Japanese support. India's participation in the East Asia Summit was facilitated by Japan, and the East Asia Community proposed by Japan to counter China's proposal of an East Asia Free Trade Area includes India.

While China has resisted the inclusion of India, Australia, and New Zealand in the ASEAN, Japan has strongly backed the entry of all three nations.

As Japan marks 60 years of diplomatic ties in 2012, New Delhi and Tokyo will have to be bolder in defining the terms of their engagement. India's trade with Japan remains a paltry $15 billion and the ambition of making it touch $25 billion by 2014 is hardly ambitious, especially compared to the Sino-Japanese trade, expected to touch $340 billion in 2011.

It is now time to realize the full potential of this important bilateral relationship.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.

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